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U.S. Senate Explores Use of Big Data To Fight COVID-19

We recently provided some insights regarding how countries across the world are using data to fight COVID-19.  The United States Senate, Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, has recently conducted a hearing with witnesses from academia, industry, and interested organizations on “Enlisting Big Data in the Fight Against Coronavirus.”  Specifically the Committee focused on “examin[ing] recent uses of aggregate and anonymized consumer data to identify potential hotspots of coronavirus transmission and to help accelerate the development of treatments.”  Within statements from Chairman Wicker, Ranking Member Cantwell, and seven witnesses from academia, industry associations, non-profits, and the CEO of a smart thermometer company, two main themes emerged: 

Big data can be a powerful force in the fight against COVID-19

Big data is a term which encompasses a myriad of massive data sets that can be collected from a wide variety of sources.  These sources can take every form imaginable, from publically available data sets to devices of all kinds, from smart thermometers to smartphone applications.  Models can be created from the resulting collected big data to understand where COVID-19 infected populations currently are, and where these populations may be in the future.  Large datasets could enable additional analysis, including recognition of patterns and cause and effect not necessarily possible through the use of smaller datasets that would not provide the same level of predictive capability and understanding and current conditions.

Graham Dufault, Senior Director for Public Policy at the App Association, provided the committee an analysis of current efforts to identify trends and hotspots to optimize resources in the fight against COVID-19. For example, BlueDot, a company which used artificial intelligence to analyze disparate sources such as foreign-language news reports, animal and plant disease networks, and official proclamations, was able to flag the outbreak and notify its clients nine days before the World Health Organization (WHO) released its first COVID-19 statement.  Demonstrating how diverse these mechanisms can be, Kinsa Health, which makes “smart” thermometers, published anonymous temperature data tool that provides insight into infection patterns, including the effect of stay-at-home orders.   

The use big data presents a significant privacy challenge that needs to be solved

As powerful and groundbreaking as big data enabled techniques may be, the collection and use of such data can create profound privacy risks.  As part of solving that issue, Ranking Member Cantwell, recommended engendering public trust through a three part framework.  The framework would provide that such data could only be used: (1) for a specific limited purpose, with a measurable outcome and an end date, (2) in a fully transparent manner with strong consumer rights, and (3) under strict accountability measures.  Chairman Wicker called for “uniform, national privacy legislation” that would enable “more transparency, choice, and control” for individuals over their data, “as well as ways to keep businesses more accountable to consumers when they seek to use their data for unexpected purposes.”  The Future of Privacy Forum, a non-profit that works to promote privacy initiatives, including through a diverse pool of stakeholders of industry representatives, consumer advocates, and thought leaders, made known their position that the COVID-19 crisis highlights the ongoing need for a comprehensive federal privacy law that includes protections for sensitive data, privacy risk assessments, and independent ethical review boards. 

We will continue to monitor developments with this situation as it evolves.  If you have any questions as to how this this could affect your situation, please contact the team at Mintz

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Author

Brian H. Lam

Special Counsel – Privacy, Cybersecurity and Technology Transactions

Brian H. Lam  is an attorney in Mintz’s Privacy & Security Practice and Technology Transactions Practice. Brian provides practical advice on the collection, use, storage, transfer, and potential loss of data. He negotiates complex data-centric information technology agreements.